Visual, Tactile, and Intuitive

Visual, Tactile, and Intuitive

Matt Shlian Ara 137 Fracture

Ara 137 Fracture (2013) is inspired by Islamic tile design as well as nano-particle research. Photo: Matt Shlian

Matt Shlian’s folded paper creations are an artful take on geometry.

Matt Shlian’s daughter is a big fan of pop-up books, especially the bestselling Bugs series by David A. Carter. The toddler gets so excited by the little three-dimensional paper critters that she’s ripped the heads off most of them. 

Her daddy can relate. Going through his old bedroom at his parents’ house recently, Shlian says, “I found a bunch of my pop-up books that I had when I was a kid, and they’re all destroyed. I’d taken every single one of them apart. I just wanted to see: Where does that thing go when you push it back?” 

We’ve all felt that thrill, watching flat folds of paper magically transform into a robot or fairy-tale castle and back again. For Shlian, 34, it’s a wellspring of creative inspiration. Driven by curiosity and a serious sense of play, he designs, cuts, folds, and assembles paper into intricate sculptures and wall pieces that capture the beauty and wonder of geometric form. His complex compositions of curves and angles, light and shadow, pattern and repetition – most often monochromatic, in black, white, or gray – are so elegant, so precise, that it’s surprising to learn he’s “terrible at math” – he even flunked it in high school. Geometry for him is visual, tactile, and intuitive, and folded paper the ideal medium to express his vision. 

“It took me a while to be OK with this, but I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time,” he says cheerfully. “The work I make is the way I can start to understand.” 

Shlian (pronounced as one syllable: “Shline”) calls his work paper engineering (technically different, he notes, from origami, in which form is achieved through folding only, with no cuts or glue). He starts by drawing a flat pattern on a computer. Then he scores the design onto paper using an automated plotter. Next comes the handwork. “When I start to fold is when the piece actually starts to take shape, and that’s when it’s exciting.” Depending on whether he’s making a tabletop sculpture or a wall-sized work, he might end up putting together hundreds of individual components. 

He began experimenting with paper as a student at craft-centric Alfred University, where he originally enrolled for ceramics. He learned computer-aided design and client relations at his first job (at Structural Graphics, a company specializing in pop-up inserts and other “dimensional print marketing” products), then went deep into explorations of folded paper in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. 

Now his career is as multi-dimensional as his art. On a given day, he might be in his studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, making pieces for a gallery show, or in New York installing a 20-foot panel at Facebook’s new headquarters, or in San Francisco, doing a window display for the Levi’s flagship store. He just finished a project for indie record label Ghostly International and has some top-secret commissions in the works for Apple and Procter & Gamble. He keeps a hand in the craft world, teaching workshops at Haystack, Penland, and other schools. He even pops up (so to speak) on Sesame Street, which regularly re-airs a segment featuring him folding paper structures with kids – “the highlight of my entire career,” he says, not joking. 

Most intriguing, perhaps, is his work with cutting-edge scientists. While at Cranbrook, Shlian began to engage with people in architecture and the sciences, who, like him, were interested in structure, physics, collapsibility. After graduating in 2006, he moved to Ann Arbor, where he continued to seek out those conversations. Eventually he was invited to give a talk to a roomful of scientists and engineers at the University of Michigan. 

“They understood my work in a very different way than I ever had, as a tool to represent scientific principles,” he recalls. “I was showing a book form, a pleated structure that sort of rotated around on itself, and this guy stood up and said, ‘That’s it!’ He’d been working on something called an auto-phagasome, which has a double cell membrane and rotates around on itself during cellular division. He’d been trying for years to visually depict how it moves. He could see it in his head, but couldn’t get it as a flat image to show his students. My book form moved the way it moved.”

That pivotal event led to his current position as a lecturer at the university’s school of art and design. It also connected Shlian with a “kindred spirit,” materials scientist and engineer Max Shtein. (Yes, even their names sound alike.) The two have collaborated on various projects for almost a decade now, in “a sort of symbiotic relationship,” as Shlian describes how their explorations inform both his art and Shtein’s research. They’re part of a team that in 2012 received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to look at how origami methods might be applied to technological advancements, such as a more efficient solar cell. 

As an artist among scientists, Shlian finds that sometimes their references go over his head, but that “visually, we speak a similar language.” He’s a big advocate of art-science interplay. “The work scientists do is incredibly creative. It’s problem solving. Artists are asking the same questions, but we have different objectives. People who think differently [from each other] need to work together.” 

With all that stimulation, it’s no wonder his art is growing more ambitious and complex, if in some ways more refined. “It’s not easy to be simple,” he reflects. “I think that’s why people love Apple products. Designing something that simple is the hardest thing.” He recently got a new, larger plotter for cutting paper. “It enables me to go big, to think: What happens when you shift to that scale? What sort of weirdness can happen?” Meanwhile he and his wife, artist Thea Augustina Eck, have launched a website called Eight Emperors, offering small, affordable items – paper pieces by him, wood objects by her. It’s a busy life, especially now that they have a little girl, but Shlian wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“You know how there’s a time in a kid’s life when it’s cool to be uninterested in things? Well, I was never that kid,” Shlian says with a laugh. “I was interested in everything.” As his endeavors unfold in new and exciting directions, he’s living the dream. 

“I’m incredibly fortunate. My gosh, I get to make art for a living!” 

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.